The book of Hebrews explains that Jesus Christ is the perfect priest and the perfect sacrifice. Chapter 10 concludes the center section of the book by discussing the perfect results of Jesus’ priestly work.
The law was not effective (verses 1-4)
The chapter begins with a conclusion: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming — not the realities themselves.” This builds on chapter 9, which sketched the rituals of the Levitical high priest and stated that Jesus did far better, offering a perfect sacrifice (himself) in a perfect place (heaven). The Levitical rituals had to be continually repeated, but Jesus’ sacrifice was fully effective and therefore did not have to be done again.
Just as the tabernacle was a copy of the true holy place in heaven (8:5), so also the rituals were copies or shadows of the real sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The tabernacle and its rituals (all included in the word “law”) represented good things, but could not bring them about. The law talked about cleansing and forgiveness, but could not cleanse or forgive.
Are the “good things” already here, or are they yet future? The grammar in this verse could be understood in either way, but Hebrews 9:11 makes it clear: Christ is the “high priest of the good things that are now already here.” Forgiveness and cleansing and relationship with God are already given through Jesus Christ, and the new covenant has already been established (8:6). There are better things yet to come (9:28), but the author’s stress in chapter 10 is on things that Christ has already brought.
The law is a shadow, not the spiritual reality. “For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.” No matter how many animals were killed, no matter how much water was used, the law could never achieve the forgiveness that the new covenant gives.
The law could not make people perfect; this implies that people are made perfect in the new covenant. However, the word “perfect” can create unrealistic ideas. Faith in Christ does not make people morally perfect. We still sin, and we still fall short of what we ought to be. The Greek word could also be translated as “complete,” and this may be a better translation. We are completely forgiven by Christ, completely cleansed, and therefore perfectly qualified to worship God, perfectly able to have a relationship with him.
The context shows what the author has in mind: the removal of sin (verse 4) and a cleansed conscience (verse 2), so that we can approach God to worship him (verse 1b). The author seems to view all of these as the same basic concept. The old covenant could picture forgiveness, but could not achieve it.
If the law could qualify the people for worship, then there would be no more need for sacrifices. If the sacrifices could achieve what they pictured, “Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.” The logic is this: If the sacrifices completely prepared people for approaching God, then further sacrifices would not be needed. The people would not have a guilty conscience, and would not feel any need to offer sacrifices for sin.
The law was inadequate, and the author implies that the new covenant gives what the old could not: a cleansed conscience. Through faith in the effectiveness of Christ’s sacrifice, we do not feel guilty. Rather, we feel forgiven, cleansed, and accepted by God. Rather than being excluded from the holy place, we are invited in.
The author then summarizes the argument against the old covenant system: The sacrifices, instead of cleansing the people, “are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” A physical substance, such as blood, cannot remove a spiritual problem. The old covenant was designed to picture forgiveness; it was not designed to bring it.
The Old Testament saints were forgiven their sins, but it was based on faith and God’s grace, not because they had paid a big enough price or earned it. Forgiveness was available, but it was not through the covenant rituals. The sacrifices had a shadow of forgiveness — they spoke about forgiveness and they pictured forgiveness — but they were not the way that forgiveness actually comes.
Christ is the answer (verses 5-10)
The author begins verse 5 with the word “therefore,” meaning “because of what I have just said.” Here, we might paraphrase it like this: “Because the old covenant could not bring forgiveness, Christ came into the world and said…” and then follows a quote from the Greek version of Psalm 40:6-8: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am — it is written about me in the scroll — I have come to do your will, my God.’”
This is one of several Old Testament passages that foreshadow the end of the sacrificial system. Our author rephrases the psalm to emphasize his point, and he begins by giving the label “first” to a point that he will come back to shortly: “First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them.’”
To make another point, he adds a comment: “though they were offered in accordance with the law.” He is making a contrast between what the law required, and what God ultimately wanted. (Jeremiah 7:22-23 has a similar contrast.) God gave the law not as a permanent ideal, but as a temporary system that would prepare the way for Christ, who brought the reality that the old rituals pictured. The old covenant law was not the final word on what God wanted.
What did he want? Verse 9 says, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” God wanted the people to obey him — but only Christ did it perfectly. The early church understood this psalm as a messianic psalm because Jesus fulfilled its words in a way that no psalm-writer could.
Then comes an important conclusion: “He sets aside the first to establish the second.” What is the “first”? In the immediate context, it is sacrifices and offerings, but our writer has also used the word “first” five times to refer to the old covenant. The covenant with its sacrifices and rituals has been set aside.
What has been established? The doing of God’s will. The word “establish” was also used for covenants, and the word “second” was also used for the new covenant (8:7). Our author is making a literary parallel here, using Psalm 40 as a miniature picture of the change in covenants. Because the old covenant could not bring forgiveness, Christ said, Out with the old, and in with the new! The new covenant been established by the obedience of Jesus Christ. He is the answer to the deficiency of the old covenant.
Verse 10 begins, “And by that will…” Whose will is this talking about — God’s will, or Christ’s willingness to obey it? It is not clear; perhaps our author left it ambiguous because both meanings are true. Since Christ conformed his will to God’s, they had the same will. It is by God’s choice, and by Christ’s obedience, that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
We have been made holy — this is another way of describing the results of the new covenant. Our sins are removed, our conscience is cleared, and we are made holy, so we can approach God to worship. How is it done? Through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ — a sacrifice that involved both his will and his body, both his mind and his flesh. Further, we do God’s will when we accept this as our means of sanctification.
Jesus bridges the gap between heaven and earth, between spirit and matter, in a way that nothing else could. Only he could make an offering on earth that was acceptable in heaven. The flesh and blood of his body was no different than the flesh and blood of any other crucified man, but it was effective for our sanctification and our forgiveness because Jesus was perfectly obedient, willingly obedient.
Humans are both physical and spiritual, and we sin in the flesh and in the mind. The salvation that we have in Christ redeems our bodies and our minds, sanctifying both for true worship of God. We are not saved by a purely physical sacrifice, nor by a purely spiritual one. A physical body had to be willingly given, because the spiritual sacrifice had to be expressed in the physical world. In Christ, we have been completely redeemed. His will and his body were given for us, and it was fully effective, once for all time.
Perfect forever (verses 11-18)
Our acceptance by God does not depend on the performance of rituals (either ancient or modern) — it depends on what Christ has already done, and it is therefore guaranteed. This is contrasted with the ineffective work of the old covenant priests: “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” Was it an exercise in futility? No, it was a picture, a drama that was worth repeating until Christ fulfilled it.
“But when this priest [Christ] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” The Levitical priests stood while they worked; Christ is able to sit (figuratively speaking) because his work is done. There will be more work in the future (verse 13), but he is sitting now, “for by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”
The work of sanctification is done (verse 10), and it is still being done (verse 14). Christ is still working in our lives, but the work is based on the sacrifice that was done in the past, once for all time. He has completely cleansed us, qualified us to be in God’s presence. That does not change.
As evidence, he quotes Jeremiah 31:33 again, the prophecy of the new covenant: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” This is the work now being done as we are in the process of “being made holy.”
Then our author skips down to the last part of Jeremiah 31:34: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” He draws this conclusion: “And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.” This is the grand finale: Our sins are forgiven; there is no need for sin sacrifices. To us, this may seem a minor point, an anticlimax, something we take for granted. But to our author, this is a major point, the point he has been hammering away at for four chapters. The sacrificial system is not needed any more. The old covenant has been set aside. It never was effective, and Christ has set us free from it.
Apparently the audience of Hebrews found the sacrificial system attractive. It was a God-given pattern of worship, and the people saw no reason to give it up. Even if God allowed other forms of worship, wouldn’t it be better to stick to the original plan? Wouldn’t this assure us that we were doing something that God likes?
No, our author says. God does not necessarily want us to do something that he commanded for a different people centuries ago. He didn’t like it in Jeremiah’s day, or when Psalm 40 was written. The law was good for a time, but its time is past.
In the early church, when Jewish people first believed in Jesus as the Messiah, many of them continued to participate in the temple rituals, either in person or through the offerings collected in the synagogues. At first this seemed harmless, and the people were allowed to continue their customs. However, as time went on, it began to seem that the rituals were a competitor to Christ. People were looking to the rituals for assurance, rather than to Christ. In their minds, their relationship with God was based partly on their participation in the rituals. They probably thought, Doesn’t this make us more obedient, more pleasing to God? Even if the laws were optional, wouldn’t it be better to continue them? And, aren’t those who continue better than those who don’t? The rituals could easily lead to judgmentalism.
In response, our author argues, chapter after chapter, that the rituals are obsolete imitations. This is not the better way — this is the inferior way. Rituals do not achieve anything. Our standing with God is based on what Christ has done, and he has set aside the old covenant. Throughout the book, Christ is compared to various aspects of the old covenant, and Christ is always better. Does our author want his people to participate in the sacrifices and rituals? Probably not. Does he command them to quit? No, not directly, but he probably wants them to come to that decision themselves.
What he commands them is to look to Jesus. Old covenant rituals are ineffective. They are shadows — copies. Jesus is the reality, and he is fully effective. There is no need for obsolete rituals. They are not a badge of better Christianity — they are an unnecessary burden that can block our view of Christ.
Practical exhortations (verses 19-25)
Hebrews is a practical book. After each chapter or so of doctrinal explanation, the author will put in a “therefore,” and point out how the believers should respond to the truth about Christ. At several points in the book, the author says, “Therefore, let us do such and such.” At 10:19, after several chapters of doctrine, the author comes to an exhortation passage. This is at a climactic point in the book. It has five exhortations. Since the old covenant is done away, and since we are forgiven by Christ, what are we supposed to do?
The author begins these exhortations by reminding us that we have two major benefits in Christ: 1) “We have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” and 2) “We have a great priest over the house of God.” Since we have these benefits, he says, we should respond in five ways:
1) “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings” (verse 22). We should accept the cleansing that Christ has given us, and use it for its purpose: that we draw closer to God. The rituals of the old covenant symbolized separation; the coming of Jesus Christ emphasizes the approachability of God.
2) “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess” (verse 23). Christ is faithful toward us, so we must be faithful toward him, keeping him central in our thoughts.
3) “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” Notice the focus. It is not that we should do good deeds. That is true, but the focus here is on encouraging others to do good — and not just exhorting others, but thinking about how we might do it better. The good deeds will be multiplied. Our relationship with God will have results in the way we interact with each other.
4) “Not giving up meeting together” (verse 25). It seems that some first-century Jewish Christians were no longer meeting together. Perhaps they were pressured by the Jewish community. Perhaps they were disappointed that Christ had not yet returned. Perhaps they felt that Christianity was a “Gentile” religion. They were more interested in their Jewish distinctives than they were in Christ. So the author urges, Don’t drop out! If you don’t meet with one another, you can’t show love.
5) “But encouraging one another” (verse 25). The first-century Jewish Christians needed to encourage one another; mutual encouragement helps everyone stay in the faith. This advice is still true today. We need to encourage one another in the faith, and in doing good — “all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Christ will return, and “bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (9:28) — and not just waiting, but working in faith as well.
We have not yet written a commentary on verses 26-39.